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Mickey Rourke as Ram (Photo: Niko Tavernise)

Directed by
Darren Aronofsky
Produced by
Scott Franklin & Aronofsky
Written by
Robert Siegel
Released by
Fox Searchlight
France/USA. 106 min. Rated R
Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei & Evan Rachel Wood

One of the wonderful things about reviewing films is watching something that you know should have been a surprise, but in a roundabout way isn’t. The Wrestler reveals a side that I thought I would never see from director Darren Aronofsky—a mostly tragic film of dashed hopes and dreams with the barebones, hand-held verve of a John Cassavetes picture. But then again, after coming off of his previous film, The Fountain, it makes sense for Aronofsky to take a step back from doing something epic (and arguably that doesn’t make much sense) and make a film grounded in realism.

While having nowhere near the same kind of daring visual approach as Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler is nevertheless as harrowing a journey for the audience. Professional wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke) had lots of fame and glory in the 1980s, fighting the likes of “The Ayatollah” and other colorful characters in the ring. But 20 years later, Ram (he’s embarrassed by his real name, Robin Radzinsky) is playing smaller and smaller venues, and his body is wearing down to the point of collapsing from a heart attack after a brutal battle.

He’s told not to wrestle again by his doctor because of the likelihood that he could go out for good in the ring. Retired from the limelight, he works more hours at his day job, stocking shelves and working at the deli at a supermarket. He also tries, with very shaky results, to patch up his torn relationship with his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and begin a courtship with a single mom by day/stripper by night (Marisa Tomei in her most physically revealing role).

It’s in this middle passage we see the fighter taken down to his lowest peg, from the personal (the daughter) to the romantic (Tomei) to his wretched deli job. In one of the most sobering and quietly sad scenes of any movie this year, Ram, signing paraphernalia at a small gathering of old-time wrestlers, looks around the room at the others and sees how worn and beat down they all are. Aronofsky films the shot very brilliantly in one not-too-fast, not-too-slow pan across the room to unobtrusive music. In other movies, this moment would be sentimental, but in this case, it is sincere and real enough to make its point on aging in this profession, or any walk of athletic life. (As a former fan of wrestling in my youth, the authentically brutal fight scenes brought back memories.)

For all of the credit due to director Aronofsky, it’s Rourke’s show. In fact, as Aronofsky points out in the press notes, Rourke dictates the style even more than the story. If this film is a kind of a raw egg emotionally, it’s because the star opens himself up to be totally vulnerable in a performance that Rourke has been building up to for decades. The parallels between his career and Ram’s are too staggering for most critics to ignore. But what’s most fascinating is that Rourke’s work is soulful without ever forcing it. He doesn’t have to; Ram is a man who only rarely lets out emotions or lets other in, but when he does, it’s a revelation. The little moments, the little details that he creates make Ram indelible. It’s possibly the most striking, dramatically satisfying male performance, and one of the best films, of the year. Jack Gattanella
December 17, 2008



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